Rain of Errors

Claim: Rolling back education reform will improve outcomes for students, especially poor students.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

The most frustrating thing about Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, isn’t the way she twists the evidence on school choice or testing, or her condescending tone toward leaders trying to improve educational outcomes, or her clever but disingenuous rhetorical arguments. No, what’s most frustrating is that we education reformers have left ourselves exposed and vulnerable to her attacks by overselling, and underthinking, our own ideas.

Truth be told, there are parts of the school-reform agenda today that are easy pickings for our opponents. Chief among these is the move to create prescriptive, top-down, statewide teacher-evaluation systems based largely on classroom-level test-score gains. Akin to Obamacare, it’s an idea that seems appealing at first blush (let’s recognize our best teachers and fire our worst!) but quickly devolves into a Rube Goldberg nightmare, with state officials trying (for example) to figure out how to link gym teachers’ performance to reading scores.

Fixing schools, especially from afar, is difficult, treacherous work, yet those of us in the reform community have tried to turn it into a morality play between good and evil. “We know what works, we just need the political will to do it,” goes the common refrain. Balderdash. We know that some things work better than others, and we also know that powerful interest groups (especially the unions) are wedded to the status quo. But anyone with half a brain or more than five minutes of experience also knows that people are complicated, schools are even more complicated, and education is a people-and-schools business. There are no easy answers.

Into these waters wades Ravitch, the repentant reformer, the double agent. She knows the weaknesses in our arguments because she was once one of us. And she exploits them piece by piece.

Which is not to say that she’s fair-minded or even-handed. She’s neither. For instance, she turns the overwhelming evidence that school vouchers generally benefit a great many recipients (while harming none) into a statement that students failed to experience “dramatic” gains. Guess what: No interventions in education (or the rest of social policy) would meet that daunting standard.

But her book is not a complete disaster for reformers. Far from it, in fact, for Ravitch walks into a trap of her own devising. She acknowledges in the introduction that her last effort, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, failed to offer a positive plan for improving student outcomes. So she sets about to offer one in Reign of Error. In describing it, however, Ravitch commits the exact same errors for which she lambastes reformers. She oversells the evidence; she fails to consider likely unintended consequences; she doesn’t think through implementation challenges. The skeptical, hard-nosed (if biased and data-slanting) Ravitch of the first half of her book turns into a pie-in-the-sky dreamer in the second half.

Consider her “solutions”:

1. Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.

2. Make high-quality early-childhood education available to all children.

3. Make sure every school has a “full, balanced, and rich curriculum.”

4. Reduce class sizes.

5. Provide medical and social services to the poor.

6. Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.

(She lists five other “solutions” that simply amount to rolling back reforms: Ban for-profit charters and charter chains; eliminate high-stakes standardized testing; don’t allow “non-educators” to be teachers, principals, or superintendents; don’t allow mayoral control of the schools; don’t view education as a “consumer good.”)

So what would a hard-nosed, data-honest Ravitch say about these six ideas?

Claim: Reducing pre-term births (via better prenatal care) would improve the life chances of half a million children in the United States every year.

Reality: The government already provides prenatal care to poor women through Medicaid and other programs. One reason the United States has an unusually high number of pre-term births is that it has an unusually high proportion of babies born to young, unwed, uneducated mothers who are less likely to take advantage of quality prenatal care. Solving that problem requires changing a culture that shrugs at 14- or 16- or 18-year-olds’ getting pregnant (often not for the first time). Ravitch says not a word about those complexities (or anything else about family-structure woes).

Claim: Early-childhood programs have abundant research to support them.

Reality: Most of the evidence for pre-school comes from a few boutique programs that were unusually effective and expensive. They served a handful of exceptionally needy young children. High-quality evaluations of Head Start show few gains, or gains that fade out after a few years. Evaluations of newer large-scale programs (like those in New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas) suffer from “selection bias” problems — we don’t know whether the children enrolled in them might be different in important ways from their peers who didn’t enroll. In other words, the research on pre-school is a lot like the research on charter schools: We can find examples of high-quality programs that get great results, and we can find plenty of the other kind, and we don’t yet know how to take the great ones to scale.

Claim: Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, many schools have cut back on every subject that was not tested.

Reality: NCLB led to some modest declines in the time allocated to history and science in elementary schools (surely not a good thing). But the well-rounded, content-rich schools that Ravitch desires (as do I) haven’t existed en masse for decades. Ravitch wrote a whole book (Left Back) explaining why this is so — and it had to do with the education profession’s commitment to progressivism and romanticism, not because of more recent testing and accountability regimes. She wrote another whole book (The Language Police) that vividly explains why so much that passes for history and literature in our schools is banal and not worth learning, and yet another book (What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Olds Know?) showing how little of it they were learning long before NCLB was even a gleam in George W. Bush’s eye, indeed long before he became governor of Texas.

Claim: The benefits of class-size reduction are so large that the cost is well worth it, in terms of higher achievement levels, higher graduation rates, and lower special-education referrals.

Reality: The evidence indicates that class sizes must be reduced dramatically — to 15 students or fewer — in order to get an impact, and even then it matters only for the very youngest students in the very earliest grades. Yet class-size reduction is costly in more than just dollars: By expanding the teacher work force, it makes it that much harder to maintain high standards for entry into the profession (another goal Ravitch asserts), meaning it could actually reduce achievement. (That was California’s experience in the 1990s.) In other words, there are trade-offs at work.

Claim: Wrap-around services, like after-school programs, will close the achievement gap.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim. For instance, a Brookings Institution study of the Harlem Children’s Zone — one of the few reforms that Ravitch likes — found its students performing on par with peers from charter schools that did not provide wrap-around services.

Claim: We need a new push for school desegregation in order to narrow racial achievement gaps.

Reality: There’s some evidence indicating that integrated schools have a positive impact on the achievement of minority students, especially blacks. But does Ravitch forget her book The Troubled Crusade, which described the disastrous history of forced desegregation? There is no political support to refight the busing wars of an earlier generation. The recent trend toward gentrification in some cities creates some new opportunities for integrated schools, but these will be limited. Yes, it would be nice if all schools were integrated; it would also be nice if all children had two parents at home. It’s not going to happen. Many low-income and minority students will continue to attend racially and socioeconomically isolated schools for the foreseeable future; the challenge is to make those schools as effective as possible.

Improving schools and helping disadvantaged children escape poverty are heroic challenges. They are complex undertakings with loads of uncertainty and potential for missteps. Some proposed solutions will actually make things worse. If Ravitch’s bromides push education reformers toward greater realism, that would be healthy indeed. But who will push Ravitch and her new friends toward greater realism on the anti-poverty agenda? America’s kids are waiting.

-Michael Petrilli

This review first appeared on National Review Online.

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